3/06/2013

c.1910 Fairbanks/Vega? "Little Wonder" Style Banjo Mandolin


This is very close in build, materials, and specs to a Vega "Little Wonder" banjo mandolin though the styling is somewhere between a Vega "style K" and "Little Wonder" in looks. It's a curious instrument and my guess is it was built by Vega/Fairbanks in Boston and then resold under some other name.

It has all the hallmarks of a typical Fairbanks/Vega build: good sturdy construction, volute on the headstock rear, "book" style headstock shape, mahogany neck with ebony board, longer 14" scale, markers at the 12, 10, 7 and 5 positions, and what appear to be bar frets. The heel shape is the same and the hardware is the same, too, with the exception of my new additions: Remo head, new No-Knot tailpiece, and mandolin-style rosewood bridge.

If it's not a Vega/Fairbanks instrument, it's a very good copy by another maker from around the time they were making these en masse -- but I have my doubts that it was made by anyone else.

Work included cleaning, a fret level/dress, the new parts, slight regluing of the fretboard, tuner lube, and of course a good setup. It plays fast with 1/16" action at the 12th fret and has a good, sweet, and mellow tone (but still good volume). The trick with these guys is to use a more massive, wider bridge like this wood-bodied mandolin style one I've installed. That makes tuning much more stable and it cuts down on unwanted overtones and harsh/shrill sounds typical of banjo-mandolins that haven't been setup well.


 This has an ebony nut, though I'm not sure if it's original.


PEarl dots in an ebony board. The frets are all good to go and have plenty of life left. The fretboard extension is also supported by a nice extra bit of wood shaped underneath (this is a good thing).


The new Remo head means that it's weather-stable and good to go for gigging purposes.


New rosewood mando-style bridge. Strings are the GHS A240 set: 32w, 20w, 13, 9 gauges. That's as heavy as I like to go on banjo-mandos.



Here you can see the multi-ply maple rim with its mahogany-veneer exterior. Also note that under the tonering and flesh hoop of the head there's a nickel-plated "sleeve." That's part of the "Little Wonder" style tonering installed on the rim.



The tuners show their age but work just fine. Note the headstock "volute" and the worn-in finish. This guy has definitely been used but looks great.




The hardware shows pitting and corrosion throughout bit it's all good, sturdy, and rugged stuff.


This style neck brace is the best! They're heavier-duty than the usual neck braces of the time and hold the neck to the pot very well.


Here you can see the new No-Knot tailpiece I've used. The end-bolt was originally not used to mount a tailpiece since there was a mando-style tailpiece directly riveted to the tension hoop. It was broken so I removed it, popped out the rivets, ground the hoop slightly down to allow good back-pressure on the tailpiece, and then installed this guy instead. This setup will also allow the musician to try a number of different tailpieces if desired, too, for tonal effect.

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